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Sasha Alexander talks TNT's 'Rizzoli & Isles': 'It's like Carrie Bradshaw with a dead body'

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Image Credit: Eric Ogden/TNTTonight, TNT debuts its new drama Rizzoli & Isles (10 p.m. ET), based on characters created by best-selling author Tess Gerritsen. Angie Harmon (Women’s Murder Club, Law & Order) stars as Jane Rizzoli, the only female detective in Boston’s homicide division, and Sasha Alexander (NCIS) as Maura Isles, the impeccably-dressed medical examiner who aids her investigations. We recently caught up with Alexander to chat about her character, the kind of female roles she’d like to see more of on TV, and how she can’t stop asking recurring guest star Billy Burke (Bella’s father in the Twilight saga) about Robert Pattinson.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I love the scene in the premiere where Jane ends up in Maura’s bed and admits she’s scared about the return of a serial killer with whom she has a history [rather than staying in her own place with her overprotective mother (The Sopranos‘ Lorraine Bracco)]. Had Jane gone to her male partner, I’m not sure we would have wanted her to say that. But with Maura, she can admit it, almost matter-of-factly, and move on.

SASHA ALEXANDER: That scene is my favorite thing in the pilot because it’s so unpredictable. What drew me is that you have these strong, professional women in this male-dominated environment, who are competent and good at what they do. And yeah, they can turn to each other and express this side of themselves and have this vulnerability, which they definitely can’t share with some of the guys around. But I like that these aren’t two women who are best, best friends when you start the series. They’re getting to know each other as well. They met through work, and we will learn as the series goes that they come from very, very different backgrounds. You get to know more about Rizzoli initially in the first part of the season, and then in the second part, you will lead into Maura’s backstory, which gets a bit darker. She’s definitely very funny — her having a 75-pound tortoise is just the beginning of the eccentricities — but as she begins to learn about her past along with the audience, things start to turn. Tess Gerritsen recently told me that she’s been seeing the episodes, and she loves where it’s going, but that Maura always had a very light and a very dark side, and so she wants to see those two things explored in the series.

How are Maura and Jane different?

Maura is definitely beating to her own drum, and it’s frustrating for Jane. Jane will get at a crime scene and say, “Okay, so there’s blood on his leg.” And Maura will say, “No, it’s a reddish-brown stain until it goes to the lab.” Things need to be scientifically proven, she’s not gonna go making assumptions, she’s not gonna lie. She has a whole hyperventilating panic attack thing if she has to lie. Jane always puts her in the position of having to fib or exaggerate a little bit in order to, you know, do what you need to do to get the facts, and she refuses to do it. She’s just really unusual. In the second episode, she says that she’s not totally comfortable with human beings. She’d rather talk to dead people because they’re never gonna judge her and she feels like she can help them, uncover what happened to them and help them have that resolution in their lives. Her brain just moves a lot faster than anything else, and I love that about her. She comes from a very wealthy family and was highly educated, probably raised somewhere in France. She speaks multiple languages. I love that’s ultra-feminine. Her clothes — I jokingly say it’s like Carrie Bradshaw with a dead body. She loves her clothes, but they don’t wear her. She’s definitely more put-together and refined, but she loves a good pair of shoes and she doesn’t mind wearing them to a crime scene. I had a fabulous pair of Bottega Venetas that personally bothered me at the crime scene [Laughs], but it didn’t bother her. I was like, “Ohmygoodness, don’t let the icky stuff touch them! They’re pretty!”

How do you top the serial killer plot in the pilot?

You don’t top that, but I will say, he doesn’t die at the end of this pilot, so you don’t know that he might not be torturing us in the future. He’s just a fabulously scary character, and he is a recurring character in the books…. We did a very interesting episode that takes place in the Boston marathon. Jane and Maura are running the marathon and they stumble upon a man they think has heat stroke, when in fact, it’s something else. It’s kind of like the Three Days of the Condor show, where things have to be done very quickly and take place within a certain matter of time, and Jane and Maura have different ways of how they want to go about handling it. So that’s pretty fast-paced. It was rather difficult to shoot.

A lot of running?

Yes. [Laughs] Running and we’re wearing, I’m not kidding, like these luge suits. These unitards. I said to [executive producer Janet Tamaro, whose credits include Bones and Lost], “I don’t know if I’ve ever worn a unitard in my life, but I certainly didn’t want to be wearing it now.” [Laughs] But Angie and I, luckily, are both athletic, so I’m able to do it. But I gotta tell you, it was a risky move. And the unitards say PUKE on them, which is an acronym for the children’s organization that we’re running for, to add to the embarrassment of the outfits. But that’s a really cool episode. In the second episode, we deal with the unresolved killings of the Boston Strangler and a possible copycat.

TNT is known for its strong female characters. What kind of female characters do you want to see on TV?

What’s interesting about our situation is that a woman wrote the books, a woman adapted it and is exec producing and writing it, and it’s two strong female characters. The thing that doesn’t happen often in television is that you have female characters that can be all things: Both Jane and Maura can be tough, and smart, and sexy, and totally silly, and vulnerable, and scared. They can be all those things. That’s what I would love to see more of on TV — women that are represented the way they really are, three-dimensional, not the way we think we want them to be, the bombshell or the smart one or the dorky one. As an adult woman, I want to see them make adult decisions and behave and interact with other people in ways that are smart and interesting. I’m getting to play that. On TNT, Kyra Sedgwick is doing it, Holly Hunter was doing it. I feel like cable gets to do it more often. I hear Laura Linney’s [upcoming Showtime] show is really interesting.

Are you a fan of The Good Wife? I always find myself describing that show as adult.

Yes. Julianna Margulies is brilliant on The Good Wife. As you look at network TV, is there another female character I’m forgetting? Look, I love Jane Lynch on Glee. I really, really do. I really feel that this person is totally out there. She reminds me of a coach that I had in the seventh grade that was just out of her mind and used to wear cowboy outfits to school. She seems like an exceptionally unique woman to me.

There’s Emily Deschanel’s Brennan on Bones, which your character sounds a bit like in terms of being a stickler for science and the truth, but Maura sounds more… functional.

Why more functional?

Brennan doesn’t know how to handle her emotions. They’re almost turned off sometimes.

No, Maura is much more evolved than that. Maura is open in terms of her sexuality and who she’ll date, and Jane is just not interested. In one episode, I set her up with this man who’s a male nurse, a supersweet guy but incredibly needy. She can’t take the fact that he’s so nice. She doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s very funny. We’re not just dealing with potential relationships and finding love, but also how your work affects that. When you choose to do these kinds of professions, who really wants to go out with that person? What man wants to have a wife who’s a detective or a medical examiner?

Will Billy Burke return? [He plays an FBI agent who wants in on Rizzoli’s case, and someone who Jane and Maura agree one of them should try to date.]

Yes, I just worked with him yesterday. He’s great. I love Billy.

Have you run into any Twilight fans while you’ve been filming with him, or do they not tail him?

No, but I keep bugging him about Robert. [Laughs.] I’m like, “Robert… So tell me about Robert.” He’s like, “Ahhhh.”

Are you really a Twilight fan, or do you just do that to tease him?

I’m not like a — what do they call the Twilight fans?

Twihards.

I’m not a Twihard, but I think it’s a good series.

Do you still have NCIS fans come up to you and talk about your death on that show? It made our list of TV’s 20 most shocking deaths.

They do, especially since the show has since then gained so much momentum and become such a wonderful success. The Paley Center had it as No. 2 on a list of the 30 most surprising TV moments. Behind Oprah’s big car giveaway, I was No. 2 — that’s amazing. It’s a testament to Don Bellisario, when he was running the show. He knows how to shock and awe his audience. People are still talking about it.

You have a movie awaiting release. Tell me about Coming & Going.

It’s a romantic comedy with Rhys Darby, Murray from The Flight of the Conchords. It’s the story of a man, he’s an OBGYN, who doesn’t have a lot of luck with the ladies. He ends up in a wheelchair for a couple of days, and he decides to stay in the wheelchair to win the love of his life, who is the character I play. She’s an immigration attorney, a tough broad who likes people in need, and she falls for this man, who she thinks is in a wheelchair but he’s not really. He’s lying to her. It’s a throwback to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where a small little lie turns into a huge snowball. It’s really fun. I’m very proud of it.

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